Anti-Intellectualism in the Church

I wrote this post in the first year of my blog, and it has become important to me now to revisit this subject. Recently, I found out that one of the lies being told about me, in regards to my departure from my previous fellowship organization, was that I had become too educated to believe the Gospel. Odd considering that then, when I left, I hadn’t restarted my collegiate career, even looked into Master’s programs, and hadn’t really thought much about finishing my educational degree. I suspect that this was mainly in response to my views on biblical translation (not KJVO, which was widely known) and my habit of questioning my ‘leaders,’ however, anti-intellectualism does go deeper than that.

Many fundamentalists abhor biblical education of any kind. They wouldn’t dare learn a biblical language, or study anything but the KJV-1611 (which I find laughable because those that preached such things didn’t themselves use the 1611), using nothing else but Webster’s 1828 Dictionary.  Imagine their surprise when I used Greek to defend positions, looked to the Church Fathers – and yes, even the Reformers – and challenged them and their need to trivialize the bible for children. The break, of course, was over none of this – it was over something very different; nevertheless, this is one of the rumors which was shared with others on why I had left. I reckon that bothers me, that much more so because I have never denied the essentials tenants of the Faith.

I wonder what they will say when I get my BA in the Summer, start my MA in January and push on to my ThD sometime after that? Does education make anyone ‘better’ in the Church? No, I don’t think so. I know that for myself, educated or not, if someone loves God, then that trumps a lot of things. Of course, most people will seek to better themselves, or to study to show themselves approved, as it were. My original intention with this post was not to be taken as criticism of them or anyone except those that deny the rightful place of education and learning in the Church. What I had hoped to do with this post was to provide a Scriptural foundation against anti-intellectualism.

Rick M. Nañez, in an interview sometime ago said,

Anti-intellectualism keeps us from affecting our institutions and their various departments with solid Christian thinking. It hinders our ability to think in terms of worldview, that is, to understand the hundreds of otherwise fragmented areas of life in a coherent way. If we are suspicious of the intellect, we are hamstrung when it comes to providing well-thought-out answers to difficult questions from critics and skeptics. Anti-intellectualism can also lead to dangerous forms of mysticism and a type of superstitious faith.

I believe that anti-intellectualism tends to lead Christians into relatively superficial spiritual lives, at least, in comparison to the impact they could make if they engaged in “thinking on purpose” for the glory of God. Also, mediocrity in the “life of the mind” leads the Christian subculture to criticize, fear, and condemn the secular institutions that their anti-intellectual, evangelical, and Pentecostal parents and grandparents abandoned the generations before.

He points to the root cause as,

Though Pentecostalism has built within it some elements that make its adherents more susceptible to anti-intellectualism, I think that evangelicals struggle with the problem almost as much as we do. We have common roots in the pragmatic, revivalistic, and romantic era of America in the 18th century, so both our nation as well as our nation’s homegrown movements tend to battle with the temptation to pit doing against thinking, and spirit against mind.

Anti-intellectualism leads to a faulty foundation for the Church, based solely on tradition – tradition that is generally only a generation or two old. Many point to the reaction against modern science, such as evolution and even biblical translation as causes of this anti-intellectualism; however, these sciences must be explored and whenever possible, embraced. We shouldn’t be afraid of any science – evolution, archeology, or any other for that matter. Further, we can look to the advances biblical languages, culture, and customs and create a truer translation of the very Word of God instead of holding blindly to a 17th century translation. And in studying the very Word of God, we can hear the words of Peter and Paul, John and James, as they tell us their theologies and their stories of Christ. In studying the biblical languages and the surrounding environment, we can be in the audience as Christ teaches the parables. We do not need to fear today’s knowledge.

This anti-intellectualism is based in misunderstood passages found in the bible, such as the one listed below.

Now as they observed the confidence of Peter and John and understood that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were amazed, and began to recognize them as having been with Jesus. Acts 4:13 NASB

The members of the council were amazed when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, for they could see that they were ordinary men with no special training in the Scriptures. They also recognized them as men who had been with Jesus. Acts 4:13 NLT

Θεωροῦντες δὲ τὴν τοῦ Πέτρου παρρησίαν καὶ Ἰωάννου καὶ καταλαβόμενοι ὅτι ἄνθρωποι ἀγράμματοί εἰσιν καὶ ἰδιῶται, ἐθαύμαζον ἐπεγίνωσκόν τε αὐτοὺς ὅτι σὺν τῷ Ἰησοῦ ἦσαν,

This is a much used verse to rail against education of ministers in the Church, or to dismiss education outright; however, upon closer examination of this verse, in context of the entire passage, we will see that the ‘ignorance’ of the fishermen was not due to lack of education, but failure to observe Jewish Religious education and the traditions that were enforced by it.

To note, παῤῥησία (parrhēsia), does not mean courage as in boldness, but directly relates to how one speaks to a higher authority. Unlearned (ἀγράμματος, agrammatos) is literally, unlettered. With special reference to Rabbinic culture, which was absent in Peter’s short sermon, it should be noted here that while Peter’s epistles are not without theological insight, John’s Gospel is filled with hard theology, such as the use of Logos. Matthew is connected to the Jewish culture which even now we are discovering. James? James should not be read plainly, or one comes away with a contradiction with Paul. In the Apocalypse, nearly every phrase is coded so that solid listeners could understand where as truly unlearned could not. We find the NT texts connects to the thought world of the time, more so than the connections to today’s world. Unless we start to understand the depth of the bible, we may very well miss something important.

Literacy, of the lack thereof, has been shown to be very low, and usually restricted to those classes that needed it. Crossan (Jesus and the Kingdom, in Jesus at 2000, ed Marcus J. Borg, p.53) cites anonymous “experts on literacy in the ancient world,” as placing literacy in the area at the time at around three percent. However, the NET bible translators tells us, Uneducated does not mean “illiterate,” that is, unable to read or write. Among Jews in NT times there was almost universal literacy, especially as the result of widespread synagogue schools. The term refers to the fact that Peter and John had no formal rabbinic training (See Louw-Nida) and thus, in the view of their accusers, were not qualified to expound the law or teach publicly. Yet, tradition credits these men with some of the most profound of the New Testament writings.

This does not mean that Peter and John were unlearned, but only unlearned in the area of Jewish Religious teaching which was of the same party that had crucified Christ.

Ignorant (ἰδιώτης, idiōtēs) has a general sense of being a private person. Originally, one in a private station, as opposed to one in office or in public affairs. The idea is that the person does not have professional knowledge, something that the Rabbis easily said about the Apostles. (see below) In 2nd Corinthians 11:6 Paul uses to refer to himself as one unskilled in public speaking. Paul, who was perhaps the most educated New Testament writer surely could not be called ignorant.

It should be noted at least John, a son of Zebedee who was no mere fisherman but an owner of an enterprise large enough to employ not only his sons but others as well, were friends of the High Priest. See John 18:15.

College Press NT Commentary:

The nature of John’s relationship to the high priest has been the subject of considerable speculation among scholars for many years. On the one hand it seems incredible that a Galilean fisherman would be an intimate with one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in Palestine. But, on the other hand, there is evidence that Zebedee, John’s father, had a considerable fishing business (see Mark 1:19-20). If John is the unnamed disciple of John 1:35, there is the suggestion that he was financially capable of leaving home and following first John the Baptist and then Jesus himself. Such a person may have been a frequent visitor to Jerusalem, and if his prosperous family had made substantial gifts to the temple, it is not impossible that the young John had worked his way into the friendship circles of the high priest’s family

If the father of the Apostles John was this wealthy, then it is more than possible that he was well-educated, although again it may have not been in the Rabbinical Tradition, the same Tradition that Christ taught against. Note, He never taught against learning, but the Tradition that developed absent of God.

Anti-intellectualism is very broad in its focus. If, on the other hand, intellectualism was tempered with the Spirit of God, as it was with Peter and Paul, then it would be serve to build a firm foundation. We must not eschew learning, else we find ourselves standing against a Paul or a John.

Granted, there can be a focus on intellectualism which would prevent a sincere believer from participating, and that too is a crime, but it is many experience to which I speak. I never want to stop learning just how much I don’t know.

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10 Replies to “Anti-Intellectualism in the Church”

  1. First, I will encourage you to go ahead with your studies and work hard!

    Second, I think that the article may well represent the attitudes of a few rednecks, but it doesn't do justice to anti-intellectualism: One can be an intellectual or strive to be an intellectual and also approach intellectuals with a hermeneutic of suspicion. Certainly this is outrageous to most professional intellectuals, yet the original classical Academic school gave us this regarding reason:

    “”This villainy which he employed was clearly buttressed by the utmost use of reason. It is not merely the stage that abounds in such crimes; even more, our daily life is studded with examples almost as outrageous. The households of each of us, the law-courts, the senate, the voting-booths, allied communities, the provinces – all have experience of how reason lies behind right conduct, but also behind evil-doing. Right conduct is practiced rarely and by the few, whereas the second is constantly performed by a host of people. It would therefore have been better if the immortal gods had granted us no use of reason whatever, rather than to have it bestowed with such a baleful outcome.” – Cicero (died 43BC), On The Nature Of The Gods.

    A century later, the apostle Paul writes: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” – 1 Corinthians 8:1

    The worst of the anti-intellectuals is Christianity's greatest intellectual, Augustine, and here is one of many of his examples:

    “But the idling of our elders is called business; the idling of boys, though quite like it, is punished by those same elders, and no one pities either the boys or the men. For will any common sense observer agree that I was rightly punished as a boy for playing ball–just because this hindered me from learning more quickly those lessons by means of which, as a man, I could play at more shameful games? And did he by whom I was beaten do anything different? When he was worsted in some small controversy with a fellow teacher, he was more tormented by anger and envy than I was when beaten by a playmate in the ball game.” – Confessions

    Much of the Stoic/Christian tradition is based on reason and knowledge being virtues. I view them as morally neutral, while The Doctrine Of Total Depravity frequently determines to what end reason and knowledge are used. So pursue reason and knowledge. Pursue Christ even more so.

  2. If only, as you say, it was based upon a 'few rednecks.' Take the KJVO culture, which prohibits (generally) the reading of texts outside the KJV. You cannot learn a biblical language, or seek to contextualize the text. Archeology is only needed if it backs up claims, and to question is to blaspheme. Much the same thing is taught in various other fundamentalists circles.

    Everything must be tempered with love, I believe, so too those who use reason and intellectualism. We often laugh that the theologians among us forgot long ago the Christian duty of love, but without them, every man would be an emperor of biblical interpretation. Yet, they are usually the first to be cast away. Yes, Christ must be pursued, but many have done so with reasoning (He is the Logos, after all) and there has been a benefit to it.

    I can tell you now, Looney, that in the fundamentalism which I have lived for two decades, you bringing up Augustine and Cicero, and not using the KJV would disqualify you as a fundamentalist.

    In the end, if we cast away both intellectualism and seeking Christ first, we have lost too much.

  3. I have spent my life with conservative churches also, but thankfully not the KVJ-only crowd. A few years were at a reformed Presbyterian church. They were 5-points-of-Calvin-only sorts and eventually told me that I would have trouble serving there because I didn't accept infant baptism. Then there was another church where I taught and sometimes preached for many years. A new preacher (for the Chinese congregation – it was multi-cultural) came in and got the elders to stop me under the pretext of “not qualified”. Of course no one from that church ever asked about my education or qualifications, nor did any of the leaders ever examine my teaching or theology, but clearly they were moving to Credentials-only!

    On the opposite end of the spectrum, there is Riverside Church in New York which dismissed a pastor recently for suggesting that Jesus is special compared to other religious leaders. He was accused of fundamentalism! Then there are rumors of hopeful young students being pushed out of Catholic seminaries because they aren't gay. Certainly what I experienced in conservative churches hurts. Being a professors kid, however, I have equally negative views of academia and non-conservative churches.

    Of course it is all about Christ, and not us. Because of that, I am truly hopeful about what Jesus is doing in the world.

  4. from a John Piper sermon “Why God Inspired The Hard Texts”

    The personal, cultural and historical impact of these impulses is enormous over the last 2,000 years. · Wherever Christianity has spread, the Bible has spread, and with it the impulse to translate it into other languages – with all the intellectual disciplines that go with effective translation. · And with that goes the impulse to cultivate a literate people who can read the new translation. And with every new generation, there is the ongoing impulse to teach young people how to read, so they have direct access to God's Word. · And with that goes the impulse to found schools as well as churches. · And in time, since translating and reading the Bible involve thinking hard about many issues, there arises the impulse for higher learning, and colleges and universities follow in the wake of a culture founded on meeting God through his Word in a Book. · And in all of this there is the impulse to write down insights into these more difficult things, and so a commitment to scholarship emerges. · And over time there is the impulse to preserve these treasures of insight and so libraries emerge and various means of copying and then printing. · And since accuracy matters so much in handling sacred texts and passing on precious insights, a discipline of exactness and carefulness in our work is unleashed over the centuries. And so on.

  5. Indeed, Looney, their is hurt enough going around – liberal and conservative – not to pin everything on one group. Perhaps I feel especially drawn to loosening the bonds of certain segments of fundamentalism because of my own scars.

  6. Good article Joel.

    From the Scriptures as well as personal experience with myself and others, I have discovered the truth of what Looney mentioned:

    “… we know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth. And if any man think that he knoweth any thing, he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know. But if any man love God, the same is known of him” (1 Cor. 8:1-3).

    – and –

    “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become [as] sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have [the gift of] prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing” (1 Cor. 13:1-2).

    ‘Sounding’ in 1 Cor. 13:1 means a loud roaring, like the ocean, and ‘tinkling’ in the Greek is really a loud clanging. Truth without love is not only useless, but a harmful, alienating irritant. Christ's unique love needs to rule our character and knowledge, even if such knowledge is true and profound, and when it doesn't rule then knowledge makes us not only ineffective, but proud and harmful.

    Also, we are commanded to be diligent to show ourselves as people of integrity to God, workmen having no cause to be ashamed, and able to cut the word of truth accurately. However, some information such as vain babbling and oppositions of science (Gr. gnosis) falsely so called, leads to evil, and we are commanded to avoid and turn away from it (1 Tim. 6:20, 2 Tim. 2:16).

    Though many glorify or vilify intellectualism, it can be used for good or evil, so is not an end in itself. Many of the most evil people in history were extremely bright and well educated, but chose to use their intellect for evil. Through Christ's Word and Spirit, we are to discern what knowledge is beneficial, and in His love, humbly use it and everything else to His glory.

  7. I am reminded of the parable of the talents. Those who have talents must use them for the kingdom – whether it is intellectualism or merely the ability to love unconditionally.

    Many do not see intellectualism as a talent to be used for the Kingdom, but look at Paul. He was a well educated man who did a great deal for the Church. Luke as well. And James? The fact is, is that these men took what God gave them and built upon a solid foundation.

  8. Anti-intellectualism is certainly an issue in the Church today and especially so within the Fundamentalist movement although not universally so.

    I wanted to provide some insight into the anonymous NET Bible note that says “Among Jews in NT times there was almost universal literacy, especially as the result of widespread synagogue schools.” At the time the note was written (mid-1990’s) many scholars (such as Safrai and others) assumed near universal literacy among Jewish males as a result of the synagogue schools. As you know, this conclusion has been challenged in the years since. My understanding is that Catherine Hezser’s Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine (Texts and Studies in Ancient Judaism 81) is considered the standard work on the subject at the moment. She argues for a very low rate. I am told that the note may be reviewed to include reference to the newer scholarship. These things, however, take time.

    Since it was an aural culture, however, we should not assume that the ability to read and write was as necessary to engage in intellectual discourse as it is today. I think the idea of the note is correct that the issue was primarily the lack of rabbinical training.

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